Japanese PM on 1st visit to tsunami-hit villages

Associated Press
Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan, center at right, bows with other officials for the victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami-destroyed town of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan, Saturday, April 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
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Japan's prime minister promised to support the hundreds of thousands of people who lost everything in a massive tsunami, as he laid eyes Saturday for the first time on the destruction of the country's northeastern coast.

U.S. and Japanese troops resumed their all-out search of the coastline for any remaining bodies in what could be their last chance to find those swept out to sea. More than 15,500 people are still missing after the disaster, which officials fear may have killed some 25,000 people.

The magnitude-9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami also knocked out power to a nuclear plant, disabling cooling systems and allowing radiation to seep out of the overheating reactors. A senior American official said Friday, however, that efforts to cool the plant appeared to be making progress.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan went to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex soon after the wave hit. But Saturday marked his first visit to some of the dozens of villages, towns and cities wiped out in the March 11 disaster.

Dressed in the blue work clothes that have become almost a uniform for officials, Kan stopped first in Rikuzentakata — a town of about 20,000 people that was flattened by the torrent of water.

The town hall still stands, but all its windows are blown out and a tangle of metal and other debris is piled in front of it. The prime minister paused in front of the building and bowed his head for a minute of silence.

He later visited an elementary school, which, like scores of schools and sports centers up and down the coast, is serving as an evacuation center.

"The government fully supports you until the end," Kan told the 250 evacuees.

Up and down the coast, helicopters, planes and boats carrying U.S. and Japanese troops scoured again Saturday for the dead. They found 30 bodies Friday, most floating in coastal waters. So far, 11,800 deaths have been confirmed.

"Unfortunately, we've come across remains over the scope of our mission, so it may be more likely than you think" to find bodies at sea so long after the disaster, said U.S. Navy Lt. Anthony Falvo.

Some may have sunk and just now be resurfacing. Others may never be found. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 37,000 of the 164,000 people who died in Indonesia simply disappeared, their bodies presumably washed out to sea.

The Japanese military stopped short of saying the search would end for good after Sunday, but public affairs official Yoshiyuki Kotake said activities will be limited.

Police officers have also been searching for bodies in decimated towns inland, but in some cases their efforts have been complicated or even stymied by dangerous levels of radiation from the nuclear plant, which is 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.

People who live within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the plant have been forced to leave, though residents are growing increasingly frustrated and have been sneaking back to check on their homes. Government officials warned Friday that there were no plans to lift the evacuation order anytime soon.

"I don't think the evacuation zones make any sense," said Tadayuki Matsumoto, a 46-year-old construction worker who lives in a zone 15 miles (25 kilometers) away where residents have been advised to stay indoors. "They don't seem to have thought it out and are making things up as they go along."

Radiation concerns have rattled the Japanese public, already struggling to return to normal life after the earthquake-generated tsunami. Three weeks later, tens of thousands are living in shelters, 260,000 households still do not have running water and 170,000 do not have electricity.

But U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters Friday that the situation at the plant appeared to be improving, according to comments reported in The New York Times.

Information that Japanese authorities had provided indicated that the cores of all the reactors were covered with water and the spent fuel pools were "now under control."

Because workers do not have a good way of cooling the reactors, some water had boiled out of pools that hold used fuel and the containers that hold the reactor cores. Uncovered fuel rods can spew massive amounts of radiation.

Chu, who is a Nobel laureate in physics, said that about 70 percent of one reactor core was severely damaged as was about 30 percent of another. He said those figures were estimates because high radiation levels prevented workers from getting a close look at the units.

Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna also said they'd seen evidence that less radiation was being emitted. Samples from Iitate — about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Fukushima complex — show levels decreasing from earlier in the week.

But senior official Denis Flory told reporters that "the overall situation is basically unchanged. It is still very serious."

The U.N. nuclear agency is sending two reactor specialists to Japan to get firsthand information. They will meet experts in Tokyo and may go to the Fukushima site.

In hard-hit Natori, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) down the coast from Rikuzentakata, dozens lined up to apply for funds as aircraft searching for bodies zoomed overhead.

Many people lost all of their possessions, including IDs, so the city has created software that compares neighborhoods before and after the tsunami. People point out where they lived, and if the house in that location has been destroyed, they are eligible for 100,000 yen ($1,200) in assistance.

Some applying for the funds, like 33-year-old Osamu Sato, said it would be hardly be enough. He and his pregnant wife bought their apartment and moved in six months before the tsunami destroyed it, plus all of their new furniture and electronics.

"To be honest, 100,000 yen doesn't help much," Sato said. "I've lost everything."

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Alabaster reported from Sendai. Associated Press writers Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna, Eric Talmadge in Fukushima and Ryan Nakashima, Mari Yamaguchi, Mayumi Saito, Noriko Kitano, Shino Yuasa and Cara Rubinsky in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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